HL Deb 20 December 2001 vol 630 cc384-431

1.16 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is an important measure and one which will go some way to ensuring that our democracy becomes more representative of society at large. For the first time in 20 years, the last general election saw a drop in the number of women elected to Westminster. By contrast, in 1997 a record number of women were elected to Parliament—120, which was double the number elected in 1992. I believe that that was undoubtedly a direct consequence of the positive measures used by the Labour Party in the run-up to that election. But, as your Lordships know, just before that election there was a challenge—the case of Jepson—in an employment tribunal. That ruling made all-women shortlists illegal under Section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

It is a melancholy fact that women now make up only 18 per cent of the Members of the House of Commons. All parties should be discomfited by that. It is essential that women are properly represented in our country's democratic bodies. It is another melancholy fact that in the past 80 years, of the 4,500 MPs elected, only 240 were women.

I illustrate further. At the 1997 election, six Liberal Democrats—five men and one woman—stood down. In 2001, seven Labour MPs stood down. Also in 2001, 25 Conservative MPs stood down. Not a single female candidate was selected to replace any of those sitting Members of Parliament. There are only two alternative explanations. One is that women simply are not up to the job, which I indignantly, and safely, repudiate; and the second is that the present system is unfair in its operation and in its outcomes.

This Bill is short and simple. Perhaps I may stress that it simply removes the domestic legal harrier to which I referred briefly. And it is permissive, not prescriptive; in other words, it allows parties internally to come to their own conclusions. It amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which applies to Great Britain, to provide that Parts II to IV of that Act will not apply to measures adopted by a political party to reduce inequality in the numbers of men and women elected. Equivalent amendments are made to the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, which obviously bites in Northern Ireland.

I mentioned earlier that the Bill is permissive not prescriptive. I believe that that is right. It is not for government to interfere with the internal workings of political parties. They should put their own houses in order if they have the will and the commitment to do so.

The Bill extends to elections beyond Westminster. It covers elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament and local government elections in the United Kingdom.

Scotland and Wales have been more successful in ensuring a fairer degree of representation for women, but I believe that is largely as a result of positive measures taken in the run up to the inaugural elections. Women make up 37.2 per cent of the Members of the Scottish Parliament and 41.7 per cent of the Members of the National Assembly for Wales. It is important that those bodies are able to increase, or at least maintain, those levels. It is also important that the Bill covers elections at local government level where the current levels of women's representation range from 27 per cent in England, to 22 per cent in Scotland, and only 20 per cent in Wales.

We believe that the Bill is compatible with our obligations under European law and the UK's international obligations. The Joint Committee on Human Rights published a helpful report on the Bill on 30th November. That committee concluded that this piece of legislation was not incompatible with the ECHR, the UK's other human rights obligations under public international law, or European Community law on equal treatment.

It is pleasing to see the work of that committee proceeding so efficiently and so promptly, not only in the context of this Bill, but notably in the context of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. It is a pleasure to be able to say that as my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who serves on that committee, is in his place. He contributed significantly to the speed and to the dispatch with which the report was produced.

The committee drew attention, most helpfully, to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the scope within those treaties for affirmative action. I am pleased that the committee concurs with our view that the Bill is compliant with those obligations. I shall say no more about the legal consequences. What a Minister says about his or her view of the law does not bind the courts, but we are confident that that stance is correct.

I know that the list of speakers is substantial. On the last parliamentary day of this year, I believe that that underlies your Lordships' commitment to ensuring that justice shall be done, even if late on Thursday, 20th December. I believe that I can look forward to unanimous cross-party support in this House. There was a significant degree of cross-party support in the House of Commons. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

1.22 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak on this important subject, especially given the high degree of consensus that I suspect will become apparent. Increasing the involvement of women in politics at national and at local level is both necessary and pressing. Such broad agreement on principles is sure to make for constructive debate.

I was a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party for 10 years and in that capacity one of my main roles was to encourage women to take up the challenges of the parliamentary trail. From that experience, I know only too well the frustrations and heartache that can be involved in the process of standing for election. I have always felt that encouraging more women to stand for election should not be about "making up the numbers"; it should be about ensuring that the political process takes advantage of the wealth of experience and the fresh perspectives that women have to offer.

The Bill applies only to those bodies and organisations that are composed of elected members. However, many of your Lordships have first-hand experience of selection, election and indeed non-election, I am sure. No doubt your Lordships will bring considerable knowledge to this debate. I turn now to another place, where the Bill is intended to have a significant impact. The statistics are well known, but perhaps I may remind your Lordships that at present only 18 per cent of MPs are women. It cannot be denied that that is a sorry state of affairs.

There are two issues at stake, but they are connected: the first is the proportion of women involved in decision-making and the second is the inclusion of women's perspectives in government policies and programmes. I do not believe that there is a range of subjects called "women's issues" that men are incapable of considering. In fact, all issues are men's and women's issues. We should recognise that more women are capable of bringing their experience and expertise to Parliament than are currently doing so.

It is difficult to accept that the current system is based on merit alone: few would seriously contend that the 82/18 per cent split is a just reflection of the distribution of talent in the United Kingdom. The involvement of such a small proportion of women in the political process should be seen as part of a wider context and a wider problem; the dwindling number of voters in recent years is indicative of widespread disengagement with politics around the country among men and women. At the last general election 3 per cent fewer women voted than men.

Increasingly it appears to be the case that people see the work of Parliament as irrelevant to their lives. That, as your Lordships know, could hardly be further from the truth. I firmly believe that the Bill should be seen in that context. If we make a sincere attempt to make Parliament more responsive, accessible and attractive, in time this kind of legislation will cease to be necessary. Increasing the number of women returned to Parliament is crucial for enhancing its credibility as a modern institution, capable of effective, responsive government. It is in that spirit that I wish to approach the Bill today.

In spite of my inclination towards contextualising this debate, I know that men and women are confronted with vastly different experiences when they decide to stand for election to Parliament. We cannot avoid discussing women's prospects in isolation, and there is no reason why we should try. Anecdotal evidence of that was in plentiful supply in another place, and it makes fascinating reading. There is plenty of scope for scoring points off one another, but the fact is that men and women have been treated differently in every party to the detriment (or otherwise) of their political careers.

It remains the case for many women that when making their political ambitions known, they are met with raised eyebrows, frosty indifference or derision. We should not delude ourselves that that reaction is confined to men. Women on selection committees practise discrimination against women. Many excellent female candidates do not let that deter them. The fact that some women do is why we should consider ways of improving the situation. If we need a clearer understanding of the reasons why so many women believe that Parliament is not for them, surely this is a good place to start. However uncomfortable it may feel to admit it, politics is still seen by many people as, if I may use the expression, a man's game. The statistics alone are enough to foster that impression and it is, unfortunately, self-perpetuating.

Many women believe that being selected to stand for Parliament will be harder for them than for their male counterparts and that their experiences if they are elected will not be positive. Indeed 29 per cent of women who have stood for Parliament told the recent MORI survey that they were aware of prejudice or sex discrimination at some stage in the process. Every political party has acknowledged that that perception is founded on reality and has undertaken to remedy the situation. I understand that each party will do so in different ways. The Bill is permissive. I genuinely hope that the rhetoric surrounding the Bill will also be permissive in tone.

As the Secretary of State took the trouble to point out, and I believe it should be stressed, it would be inappropriate for the Government to intervene in the internal workings of political parties.

There are, however, important matters on which I should appreciate clarification. It seems myopic to claim that there will be no new burdens placed on political parties as a result of the Bill. In another place, the Minister for Transport, Local Government and the Regions referred on some occasions to, what will happen in the Government's view", and at other times to the fact that political parties will have to take legal advice. There seems to be some confusion over precisely what impact the Bill will have on political parties, particularly if its provisions engage the European Convention on Human Rights. I am afraid that this may be a necessary consequence of the Bill being permissive rather than prescriptive. There may well be the need for a regulatory impact assessment once political parties are subject to the provisions of the Bill.

No one seems entirely sure of what the legislation will permit that is not currently permitted. Twinning, zipping and other special measures seem to have been used without challenge since 1996 and the Jepson case. That is not to say that they would not be a challenge in the future. Assuming that the ECHR is engaged, a political party will presumably only be permitted to take action that is proportionate in ECHR terms. It will of course have to take legal advice to establish exactly what it can do and what it cannot. Whether a particular course of action is proportionate is a matter for the courts.

The Bill as drafted appears to protect political parties from expensive legal challenges. Are we to accept that the funding of legal challenges is to become an inevitable expense for political parties? I would be grateful if, in winding up, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal could give some indication of the Government's view on this matter.

The rest of my concerns relate to the possibility of legal challenge under European law and particularly under the Equal Treatment Directive. I believe I understand the Government's position on this point: the selection of MPs and other elected representatives is deemed to be sufficiently unlike the process of being selected for employment to fall within the Equal Treatment Directive.

However, it seems that the Government cannot guarantee that that is the case. The European Court of Justice could well make a different decision. The ECJ has tended to interpret the law to suggest that a positive action system should not be so rigid as to bar men totally from access to particular posts. It seems that the Government are introducing legislation that could well fall foul of European law at some time in the future. I understand that the Government have offered reassurance in another place; namely, that they have considered this aspect of the Bill carefully. My concern, however, remains. I should be grateful if the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, will offer similar reassurance to your Lordships' today.

Finally, I reiterate my sincere hope that we shall see more women becoming involved in the political process, at both local and national levels. Representing a constituency in Parliament is an extraordinary job. It is a task which requires commitment, talent and experience. Many women who would make excellent Members of Parliament are, for a variety of reasons, not coming forward. This disengagement is reflected in the small proportion of women who voted in the last general election. Of those women who do come forward, many experience treatment different from that of their male counterparts. I am confident that every party will work on this issue over the coming months. Because I believe in freedom of choice for political parties, in the freedom to exercise one's talents and be recognised for those talents regardless of one's sex, I accept the need for this legislation. It seeks to allow political parties to rectify a situation that has long been the subject of justifiable and considerable frustration.

1.35 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for introducing the Second Reading of this short but important Bill, albeit at the very end of the Session.

A cynic might point out that the order of today's programme suggests that football is more important than gender equality, but I shall not let myself be distracted by that thought.

I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke from the Front Bench on behalf of her party. She has a distinguished record in this area. I sympathise with a good deal of what she said, particularly in the earlier part of her speech.

From these Benches I should like to give a warm welcome to the Government's proposals. This is a simple Bill, but it tackles a significant problem. As the noble and learned Lord said, it disapplies for registered political parties the sections of the Sex Discrimination Act under which the Labour Party was successfully prosecuted in 1996 for its use of all-women shortlists. In effect, it permits, but does not oblige, political parties to use positive action to increase the number of women elected at parliamentary, EU, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local authority elections. It is a measure designed to be of a temporary nature although I understand that it can be continued after the original period is over.

In the current House of Commons, only 18 per cent of Members are women. To my sorrow, only five out of the 52 Members elected as Liberal Democrats in 2001 are women. That is despite years and years of effort in trying to persuade women to come forward and to educate them and make them fit for the selection process, and, more recently, trying to train selectors to select in a non-discriminatory fashion.

The problem is not that women cannot get selected to parliamentary constituencies, but that they cannot get selected for winnable seats. That is the significance of the point about the replacement of retiring MPs raised by the noble and learned Lord. Indeed, the failure of the Labour Party to get more women selected in place of its retiring MPs was despite the fact that it had 50:50 men:women shortlists in those particular seats. Even that was not sufficient to get a significant proportion of women put forward as candidates.

The recent EOC survey, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, referred, covered 400 parliamentary candidates, both men and women of all parties. It found that 52 per cent of the candidates agreed with the statement that, women have to be better than men to be selected". and 41 per cent of the candidates agreed with the statement, selection committees in my party tend to look more favourably on male than on female candidates". It is no wonder that the UK is 33rd in the world in terms of its proportion of women Members of Parliament.

How other countries deal with the problem can teach us a good deal. Let us consider, for example, Sweden and Norway. One is inside and one is outside the European Union, but both are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. We note that Sweden has the highest percentage of women in Parliament of any country in the world, at 43 per cent, and that in Norway 36.4 per cent of Members of Parliament are women. But in both cases, although there is equality legislation in both countries, that law is not relevant to the selection of parliamentary candidates and it is a matter of choice by political parties whether they adopt positive action to increase the number of women members of their parliament. Interestingly enough, in Norway, by convention every government since 1986 have ensured that 40 per cent of the members of the government are women. In neither Sweden nor Norway has any case been brought by a man against the positive action in favour of women candidates.

The most interesting case is France. In France, the main source of equality law is the constitution, starting with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It went on to deal with the rights of men, women, citizens, and so on. Before the French could tackle positive discrimination in favour of women in elected office, the constitution had to be modified. That was achieved in 1999.

In May 2000, a new electoral law was passed. That applied both to local, regional and European Union elections—in which a list system is used—and to parliamentary elections in single-member constituencies. For the list elections, each block of six candidates on a list must contain an equal number of men and women. The effect of that was seen in the local commune elections of March 2001, when the percentage of women elected rose from 22 per cent in 1995 to more than 47 per cent in 2001.

For parliamentary elections, the gap between the number of women and the number of men candidates presented by a party cannot be greater than 2 per cent without the party losing part of its state funding. That weapon is not available in this country, as—rightly or wrongly, and I shall not go into that argument—political parties do not receive state funding. So if, for example, out of 100 candidates, a party presents 40 women and 60 men, its state funding will drop by 10 per cent We do not know what will be the result of that new rule, but it will become clear in the parliamentary elections in 2002.

Much has been written and said about the permissibility of positive action under European and other human rights law. I am no lawyer, and others present today, including my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, can speak with far greater authority, but as a lay person, it seems obvious to me that if other European nations that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights or members of the Union, or both, can promote greater equality between men and women candidates, we ought to be able to do the same without risking legal challenge.

My understanding is that positive action must be proportionate and temporary. The Bill appears to satisfy both of those conditions. However, I should like the Minister to tell us what the Government have concluded in respect of the relevance to the Bill of the equal treatment directive. I wish the Bill well. I hope that it will be passed as soon as rationally possible without amendment, and I look forward to listening to the contributions of the extraordinarily distinguished gallery of people I see opposite.

1.44 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, in my experience it is rare to voice the usual courtesies of your Lordships' House about welcoming a Bill with the genuine enthusiasm that I feel about this one. I also warmly welcome my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn to the additional responsibility of being spokesman for women's issues in this House—following, if I may say so, a well-trodden tradition of combining the roles of Leader of the House with spokesperson on women's issues.

As only the gender has changed during the past few months since I stepped down from that combined role after the May election, I feel that I can say without presumption—I hope that this raises neither biological nor ethical issues—that I feel myself to he the surrogate mother of the Bill. It has had a long and complicated gestation, but I am obviously delighted that, following the manifesto commitment made by the Labour Party before the May 2001 election, the Government have brought forward such early legislation on this important matter.

During my time as a Minister dealing with such issues, the arguments against such a Bill came from two main directions. We have already heard some of those arguments and will hear more. The first negative argument is that we do not need heavy-handed legislation on the matter—that, in time, women will find their way into elected office in the proper proportion, if that is where they wish to be and they are good enough to hold such office.

The second argument, which has been more potent and has already been raised by both the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas of Walliswood and Lady Seccombe, concerns not whether we in Britain want to take any action to get more women into Parliament and local government but what are the possible complications of our relationship with our European Union partners in seeking to achieve that.

When I was involved with the matter in government, together with Civil Service colleagues and political and academic advisers, we tried hard to persuade people I must say that there were people in government who were opposed to such a move from both points of view that I have just described—that those arguments did not stand up. The big breakthrough came—here I must pay tribute to the Constitution Unit at University College, London, and Meg Russell, who was the lead author on the subject—when we decided to try to approach the question through changing electoral, rather than employment law. Strong legal and political skills were applied to that by my special adviser, Clare Cozens, who is about to take up a post at the Equal Opportunities Commission. Both women were important in finding a way through on the matter.

We now have the Bill, which;permits steps to promote women as candidates in elections at all levels. As we have heard, in the Labour Party that almost certainly means a return to the previously outlawed all-women shortlists. I do not mind admitting that I am a late convert to the idea of all-women short lists. But like all converts on many issues, I am now a strong believer that that is the only way to increase the proportion of elected women representatives. After all, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, explained, we have tried many other ways to engage women in politics and improve their chances of selection, but all-women shortlists have been most successful in achieving the result that we wanted at Westminster.

My conversion to that policy was based on two grounds. Those were my experience of the 1997–2001 Parliament and my experience with ministerial colleagues and others in our European counterpart countries—to which, if I may, I shall return. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, before the 1997 election, I had assumed that we had definitely put behind us the arguments about whether women were equal in their role and capacity in the political arena. I had hoped that by then we had demonstrated beyond doubt that we were entitled to have more women Members of Parliament, councillors, Members of the Welsh Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. That was not because of any belief that women can only represent women, or that only women can deal with particular subjects. However, unless we have women in public life in much the same proportion as they are in the population—I remind your Lordships that that is 51 per cent; rather higher than the 18 per cent that has rightly been cited as the proportion in the House of Commons at present—we lose women's distinctive perspective. There is a genuinely different women's perspective.

Furthermore, we lose the different life and work experiences which women have and bring to the political process. And we should have no shame or hesitation in mentioning the benefit of the general political skills which many women politicians and would-be politicians have. That is the case particularly in a world in which much political endeavour is to achieve consensus.

My observation of the past few years has been that I was rather naïve in expecting that that view was universally agreed by everyone in the political arena. As has already been mentioned, in the 1997 election after the adoption of the all-women shortlist arrangements, 101 women Labour MPs were elected. I believe that one could say without challenge that those 101 women had ability, just like their male colleagues. They brought a different set of skills to the job, just like their male colleagues. They had different strengths and different weaknesses, just like their male colleagues. It is fair to say that they approached policy-making with intelligence. They changed government policy through evidence-based pressure on Ministers, a fact of which I was well aware.

They did not necessarily make a great deal of noise—they were not always the people heard on radio programmes or seen on television but they made a great deal of difference to the lives of their constituents. That was often the case, but certainly not exclusively, on issues of importance to women which perhaps had not seemed so significant to their male colleagues.

However, many of the 101 women Labour MPs were dismissed in a derogatory way as "Blair's Babes". And the women who became Ministers were often again denigrated on sexist grounds by commentators and, it must be said, sometimes by their colleagues. The attempts which they often spearheaded to improve and make procedures in Parliament more family-friendly and acceptable were defeated, often by what could fairly be described as the "old-boy network".

It is not surprising that many of them lost heart. Even the 101 women Labour MPs, plus a handful of those from the other parties which made up a total of 119 MPs in the previous Parliament, did not form a critical mass to change things and to make their voices heard as strongly as they should have been in the House of Commons.

As my noble and learned friend reminded us in introducing the Bill, the constituencies apparently listened to the criticisms of women MPs and decided to return to their preference for male candidates. The voluntary cultural change which many of us had hoped might happen as a result of the stimulus of the all-women shortlist in the mid-1990s simply did not happen. As we know, even this year in other parties it was even more difficult for women to take part. I even heard the old chestnut again wheeled out at a selection conference this year, when a women prospective candidate was asked how she would manage without a wife!

We have reached the stage at which it will take decades for significant numbers of women to take their places in Parliament and other elected bodies to form the famous "critical mass" unless we take the kind of positive but none the less proportionate action which the Bill proposes. I am delighted that a way through the legal obstacle seems to have been achieved by going along the route of changing and making changes to the electoral law process rather than through the employment law, the one which seemed so difficult to confront.

The next major question, which was raised by previous speakers, is how the approach can be dealt with and whether it will run foul of Europe, the EU directives and the European human rights legislation. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, I would never pretend to have any legal expertise in that area. However, I have been reliably informed and feel confident in asserting, as did my noble and learned friend with greater and more expertise on which to rely, that in these matters the selection of parliamentary candidates is not an area in which European legislation can bite; otherwise—and the question was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood—how could the vast majority of member states within the EU have legislated for positive action such as we now contemplate?

I am sure that the existence of such measures within the EU is the reason that has created a much higher representation in our partner countries in Europe. We have heard of the particularly startling example of how a change in French legislation led to such major increases in local elections this year. One campaign doubled the number of women councillors overnight, as the noble Baroness. Lady Thomas, described.

When I discussed the issues with my European counterparts at ministerial and political gatherings. they were always amazed when I told them that the United Kingdom courts regarded selection of a parliamentary candidate as the equivalent of an offer of employment and therefore subject to EU jurisdiction. I understand that every other EU member state treats it as a matter of electoral law, whereas it seems that the EU has no locus. As has already been stated—and I, too, look forward to hearing the contribution of the noble Lord. Lord Lester of Herne Hill, on the subject—because measures such as those proposed in the Bill are proportionate, any attempts to eliminate discrimination are also permitted and able to fall under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In common-sense terms—and I know that it does not always apply to legal debates, particularly those which are based on some of the European arrangements—it seems to me that those are sufficient reasons not to be concerned either about the European jurisdiction in general or about the European Convention on Human Rights in particular.

In conclusion, I believe that the Bill is necessary and proportionate. It will benefit not only women, but all our democratic institutions. They will become more diverse and have representation and membership which is more representative of the balance of the population. I hope that this unelected House will give the Bill speedy deliberation and a speedy passage. I. too, am delighted that so many distinguished contributors are in the Chamber today. That bodes well for the successful passage of the Bill.

1.57 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, I begin by congratulating the Government on the Bill and on the many actions they have taken to promote a far better representation of women in public affairs, not least that there are seven women in the Cabinet. That positive approach is reflected—if, as a relatively new girl. I may say this—in the impressively visible role played in all parts and on all sides of this House by its noble Baronesses, still alas, at 16 per cent, a minority of your Lordships.

I welcome the Bill, but at the same time I regret it. I regret it because it is still so painfully necessary. But that, alas, is entirely in line with the whole history of the subject. There were, for example, as many present will remember, no fewer than 28 unsuccessful attempts before women got the first bite at the vote. Perhaps not everyone will remember because they were between 1870 and 1914. The first woman MP was elected in 1919 and during the past 60 years the percentage of women MPs has never risen above 6 per cent.

Therefore, when I chaired the 1990 Hansard Society Commission, Women at the Top, 18 years after the Sex Discrimination Act, it was no surprise that in our recommendations we had to appeal to all political parties to scrutinise the way in which their policies and practices placed women at a real disadvantage in their efforts to be adopted as candidates.

We come to 1997, when at last we can see some improvement. The percentage of women MPs rose to a dizzy 18 per cent, but only after Labour's controversial introduction of women-only shortlists, subsequently pronounced illegal. Hence today's Bill, which seeks to legitimise some forms of positive discrimination of a kind that, as we have heard, have long been outlawed in the employment field.

The irony of this is that all our political parties, while proclaiming the principle of equality of opportunity, seem to recognise that they cannot do the right thing without having a law to make them do it. I understand the need, but despite what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, I have to say that I still hope that none of the political parties will feel it necessary to go back to the particular kind of positive discrimination involved in all-women shortlists—whether technically lawful or not. The permissive nature of the legislation will leave each political party free to decide for itself. That is a major selling point for the Bill.

My hope, however, is that by now all parties will have learnt the important lessons and that instead they will implement much more vigorous forms of positive action rather than positive discrimination to achieve the right results. For I remain wary of positive discrimination for at least two reasons. First, because there are considerable dangers of backlash from that approach. We have seen that in the USA, for example. Noble Lords will recall the 1978 Bakke case where a less qualified student was accepted into a medical school, having been preferred to a white student. That was done as compensation for past race discrimination. The second reason—I suspect that we shall hear a little more on this from that most knowledgeable of all experts in the field, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill—is that such action might, depending on how it is translated and the proportionality of the actions, fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The question is whether positive action, as opposed to positive discrimination, is likely to have the desired effect. Personally, I am convinced that if it is consistently applied it can make at least a substantial difference, even if it does not provide the complete solution. I say that on the basis of progress achieved in other fields, working from the analysis of our Hansard Commission report.

We started from the premise that, despite the efforts of the Equal Opportunities Commission over the previous 15 years, it was quite clear that even more positive action was needed. Above all, it was needed to remove blocks to women's progress to the all-important decision-making levels. Hansard identified specific barriers. First and foremost was the persistence of outmoded attitudes towards the role of women and, secondly, the need for more flexible and family-friendly structures for work and careers, including more childcare provision. Again, the Government have achieved a good deal in that field.

As for outmoded attitudes, it was clear that the higher the level of responsibility and the "clubbier" the culture of the organisation, the more outdated were likely to be the attitudes. Company boards, senior common rooms and that most exclusive of all men's clubs—the House of Commons, or "the other place" as I now have to refer to it were among the worst offenders. We described the then proportion of women MPs—it had just risen to 6 per cent—as "wholly unacceptable". After all, the House of Commons is a body which should set the agenda for the whole nation. As we have already heard, women with their experience and expertise comprise 51 per cent of the nation.

That was the message which inspired Business in the Community to establish the campaign originally entitled "Opportunity 2000" which I had the privilege to chair in its early years. It is known today as Opportunity Now. We set out to persuade employers that, above all, it was in their own bottom-line best interests to make the most of their human resources; that is, of the female talent which they had trained and developed, and yet appeared ready to see go to waste. On that basis, very real progress has been made, although still not enough at the most senior company boardroom level.

More enlightened employers, however, in the public as well as the private sector, have increasingly recognised the value of their women employees. They have made the necessary adjustments to allow women steadily to move up the management ladder. Opportunity Now employers are well ahead of the national average in the number of women managers they employ. Furthermore, they are perceived by the brightest of both sexes at the start of their careers as the kind of forward-looking organisations for whom they themselves would like to work.

One of the most important ways that this has been achieved is by organisations setting clear gender targets, by firmly monitoring their progress towards them, and making public the results on a yearly basis. Research shows that by putting in place the flexible arrangements necessary to retain valued employees—increasingly, for men as well as women during periods of family responsibility—the growing awareness that they may otherwise lose those employees to a more enlightened competitor has helped to concentrate minds remarkably.

I would argue that it is that lesson which all political parties have simply got to take more seriously, even if only for their own sake. It is clear today that the Labour Party, with 23 per cent women MPs, heads the list. The Liberal Democrats at 10 per cent would like to do better; we have heard that already. The Conservatives, dismally, are lower still at 8 per cent. But the truth is that no political party can be proud of its record to date. Yet I believe that a party's electoral success increasingly will depend on how well they perform in this field.

Leaders in the other place are already addressing the vexed questions of parliamentary hours and conditions of work, but the parties themselves also have to take action at every level. Above all, however, they must ensure that a proper proportion of women appear on each list of candidates, in particular for winnable seats—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. For that to happen, the parties must ensure that each constituency selection committee, whether choosing councillors, MEPs or parliamentary candidates, is itself properly chosen, trained and equipped to do the job fairly, legally and, above all, positively. If they fail in that, they will fail at the polls as well. Just as in business, so in politics; more forward looking competitors will beat them to the post. And quite right too.

2.8 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the example of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, and many other Members of the House, of both sexes, who have done so much to promote equality of treatment and opportunity for women.

I am proud to have been one of the architects of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. I remember that in our discussions in Whitehall when that Act was being debated we had many strong arguments with officials who were passionately opposed to positive action. We managed to get limited positive action written into the Sex Discrimination Act, including special measures to enable the Labour Party, in particular, to have a women's section and special positive action within the party. All that was beneficial.

I have absolutely no doubt that there is a need for positive action to overcome the effects of discrimination and disadvantage. The Joint Select Committee on Human Rights—about which the Lord Privy Seal has said some generous and kind things—has made it clear that positive action is sometimes required, and that that is certainly compatible with international human rights law and with European law. So far, so good.

I have no doubt—and the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights has no doubt—that the Lord Privy Seal was perfectly correct to sign, under Section 19 of the Human Rights Act, on the face of the Bill that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is compatible because the Bill is both permissive and a blank cheque—that is, it does not require any action which could conceivably breach the principle of equality, properly understood, which includes proportionate and necessary measures to tackle inequality.

However, there is a problem which I feel it is necessary to air in public although I suspect I shall suffer the fate of Cassandra. Noble Lords will remember that Cassandra had the ability to make prophecies that were accurate but which were disbelieved at the time—and then met a terrible fate for getting it right. I feel it is necessary to be a bit of a Cassandra because the version of the risk to political parties presented to the House and to the other place somewhat understates the problem. The problem is not whether the Bill is compatible, but exactly what political parties can and cannot do to write on the blank cheque which is the Bill without finishing up in court facing claims which, if they succeed, could now include damages and, certainly, large legal costs.

What the Government say is summarised in two extremely helpful and detailed Answers given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, to Questions I tabled. For those who are interested in this kind of thing, one Answer was given on 28th November and the other was given on 17th December. I have never read more helpful and lengthy legal opinions in the course of Written Answers to Questions than one finds there.

The Government's position can be summarised in this way. They say that we do not have to worry about European Union law because this does not concern employment; therefore it falls outside the employment equality directive. They say that we do not have to worry about the Human Rights Act—at least not directly because political parties are not public authorities and so cannot be sued under the Human Rights Act—but it may be that the Human Rights Act will apply as between the party and the member, in terms of the contract of membership, in private law rather than in public law. The Government then say that whatever is done must be proportionate—but they do not say what "proportionate" means, and in particular what it means in relation to all-female shortlists, which is the issue in the Jepson case. They say that it is all up to the courts in the end. That is a crude summary of the Government's position.

The paper written for the Constitution Unit by Meg Russell, who is not a lawyer, was rightly referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, as an important document. I declare an interest as one of the founders and advisory council member of the Constitution Unit. That paper rightly points to the fact that lots of other member states have recently been doing this kind of thing. But I am afraid that she understates what the real legal problems are.

Without boring everyone to death, perhaps I may first say what I believe we should be doing about the gross under-representation of women in Parliament so far as the law is concerned, and then set out what I believe the real legal risks to be.

We should be doing three or four main things. First, we should be applying the full force of the sex and race discrimination legislation to tackle the direct and indirect discrimination now being practised by the political parties. I have no doubt that indirect discrimination is commonplace within all the political parties. I wish that the EOC and the CRE would exercise their functions in relation to that, whether advisory or more coercive.

I am convinced that the great benefit of the Jepson decision—the decision of John Prophet's industrial tribunal in Leeds holding that all-women shortlists were unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act—was that it made it clear that political parties may not discriminate directly or indirectly on grounds of gender. That decision was applied later by the Employment Appeal Tribunal to race as well. So the first vital point is to eliminate direct and indirect discrimination.

Secondly, if possible, there should be a fairer and more proportionate system of electing Members of Parliament, one that would encourage greater political pluralism and diversity, as has been done across the Continent. That would certainly help. I am not a fanatic about proportional representation. However, I have no doubt that in the United Kingdom, as in the United States, one of the reasons for the gross under-representation of women is a consequence of having the first-past-the-post system. That, of course, is not something that this Government are going to do.

Thirdly, a positive duty should be imposed on political parties under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and then under an amended version of the Sex Discrimination Act, unless Members of both Houses consider—and this is arguable—that it is not the place of Parliament to regulate political parties at all, notwithstanding the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which does a great deal in this field. I can understand the Government saying that they will not impose positive duties on political parties. So the next thing that the law can do is to have a carefully tailored exception to allow positive action which is necessary and proportionate.

The Government have shied away from writing in any proportionality requirements or giving any guidance to political parties, saying, "Let's leave it to the courts". So my last point is: what are the risks so far as the courts are concerned?

The first risk is that this will be regarded as falling within the sphere of European Union law, notwithstanding what has been said in this House. The industrial tribunal, against whose decision no appeal was made, decided in the Jepson case that this did fall within the 1976 equal treatment directive and Mr John Prophet, as chair, used the directive in the context of the Sex Discrimination Act. So the Government have to say that that decision is wrong, and that European Union law does not apply.

Secondly, the Select Committee on Human Rights, in its report—commended by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal—regarded it as being strongly arguable that European Union law does apply for the reasons set out in the report. I shall not go into those reasons. That would be boring. But there is a reasonable argument that European Union law does apply. We shall not know that unless and until the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg decides the issue, if it has to do so.

It seems to me that the much greater risk is under the Human Rights Act, which is not dealt with in most of the papers that one has read on the subject. The problem, which the Select Committee identifies, is that political parties are public authorities for the purpose of the Human Rights Act.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will forgive me if I say that the weakest part of the Answer that he gave on 17th December to my Question, when trying to explain why political parties are not public authorities for the purpose of the Human Rights Act, was: a body will only be a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act if it has a public function, that is, a function which is governmental or quasi-governmental in nature and which seeks to achieve some collective benefit for the public. The Government's view is that the selection of a candidate to stand for election is internal to the party and its members, and is more a private act that furthers the party's own ends than a public function".—[Ofticial Report, 17/12/01; col. WA 32.] With great respect, that cannot be true. First, that interpretation of what is a public function is crabbed and narrow—much narrower than the interpretation taken by the courts in the cases under the Human Rights Act. Secondly, even if it were possible to confine the notion of public authority and public function to a function that is "quasi-governmental in nature", whatever that means, there are many examples of American constitutional court cases in which the Supreme Court of the United States repeatedly ruled that pre-primary selection processes in the American South that excluded blacks constituted state action. We are not talking about the Garrick Club choosing members, for heaven's sake. We are talking about a political party selecting official party candidates for public office, either in Parliament or elsewhere. Our American friends would be astonished to learn that that is not held to be a public function on this side of the Atlantic, because it is manifestly state action. Political parties are private for most purposes, but not when they are selecting candidates for public office.

I often have doubts, but I have no doubt that the courts would say that political parties are public authorities for the purpose of the Human Rights Act, in which case they can be sued directly under Section 7 of the Human Rights Act if they act in a way that is not compatible with the convention. The relevant articles of the convention are Article 3 of the first protocol, read with Article 14. If the political party acts disproportionately by having crude or rigid systems of the kind that my party threw out at its recent conference in Bournemouth, I have no doubt that it will be found to have discriminated unlawfully under the Human Rights Act. That is a serious risk. Fortunately or unfortunately, political parties will need a lot of legal advice one way or the other. No lawyer will honestly be able to say whether twinning, zipping or all-female shortlists will be compatible until there is case law.

I have one other point to make. Unfortunately, I have a terrifically good record as Cassandra. I advised the Labour Party informally before Jepson that it would lose and was told that it was none of my damned business, because it was not my party. Unfortunately, I was proved right. I have a terrible feeling that if political parties—the Labour Party or mine—go too far, they will come a cropper, and my goodness me it is going to cost a lot of money.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, given the noble Lord's knowledge on the subject and in the light of recent experience, can he tell us whether, if Cassandra is right, we could seek a derogation from the Human Rights Act?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I deplore any derogation from the Human Rights Act. That derogation arose from a public emergency that occurred on September llth threatening the life of the nation. This is not terrorism legislation; it is remedial legislation.

A perfectly good point has been made that lots of other countries are doing this kind of thing, so what is the problem? The problem is that none of those countries has had their systems tested in either of the two European courts. The only place where the idea has been tested is France, which my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood mentioned. Why did the French amend the constitution? They amended it because the Conseil Constitutionnel decided in 1982 that a rather modest 25 per cent quota for women in local government elections violated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of' the Citizen by violating the principle of equality. No one knows whether the amendment made to the French constitution, to take the matter away from the Conseil Constitutionnel, will pass muster under either European Union law or convention law.

All we can say is that there is a lot of this type of thing happening at the moment, and European judges have yet to pronounce on it. In the United Kingdom, however, thanks to the Government's wisdom in incorporating the convention in the Human Rights Act 1998, it will be British judges who decide such questions. If parties behave sensibly and proportionately, the Bill will be a great step forward. If they do not, it will turn out to be a source of liability.

I therefore support the Bill, and I agree with the Lord Privy Seal that it is compatible with the convention. I simply urge political parties not to he over-enthusiastic in seeking to overcome this ancient and completely unacceptable situation of the gross under-representation of women in Parliament and elsewhere.

2.26 p.m.

Baroness Goudie

My Lords, a century ago, in 1901, Christabel Pankhurst decided to enrol as a law student. She completed her studies and joined the degree of Bachelor of Laws with first class honours. However, it was impossible for her to practise as a solicitor or a barrister. Because she was a woman. she became Secretary of the Committee to Secure the Admission of Women to the Legal Profession. It was not until enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 that the professions of the law were opened to women.

One hundred years on from 1901, and many decades after the efforts of the Pankhursts and others achieved women's suffrage, women are still grossly under-represented in the profession of politics. The Bill seeks to do something about that. I therefore warmly welcome it. It is a well-balanced Bill that allows a political party, should it wish to do so, to adopt measures to reduce inequality, and it does not compel anything. It will apply on enactment, but a sunset clause will apply when it is no longer needed. The sunset clause will, however, allow a big push to be made in the period covering the next three general elections.

Political parties in many European countries and around the world use positive action to address inequalities between men and women, and we should not lag behind. Legislation allowing political parties to apply positive-action mechanisms in candidate selection is essential. The use of such mechanisms has been shown to increase women's representation. Progress has been slow, or non-existent, when such mechanisms have not been used.

We must take action urgently; otherwise, we shall be unable to influence selection procedures for the next general election. In 1997, the number of women Members of Parliament increased from 60 to 120, largely because the Labour Party used all-women shortlists. In 2001, after such shortlists were outlawed, the number of women Members of Parliament decreased. This is no time for complacency.

2.28 p.m.

Baroness Morgan of Huyton

My Lords, having supported the Bill's development while Minister for Women, I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate, and I am delighted that the Bill is receiving its Second Reading today. As many of your Lordships are aware, selections that will be made this year could be affected by this legislation. I therefore welcome the Bill's simplicity and the speed with which it is being passed.

All Members of this House and of the other place wish that the Bill were not necessary; it is simply a means to an end. When I was involved in promoting all-women shortlists and a variety of other measures in my party, we believed that one push would make the difference and that progress would be maintained once we had achieved a large intake of new women MPs. Sadly, despite the fact that we maintained 50–50 male-female shortlists, the progress was not maintained; in fact, there was some slippage.

We are making a clear statement by supporting the Bill, not only about our desire to see women take their rightful place in public life and in the country's governance, but about our commitment to improving the quality of our democracy. We must build a democracy that uses the talents of all our people and truly reflects the society it was created to serve. Our society has changed considerably and our democracy needs to keep pace with those changes. It cannot be static.

This Bill simply recognises the reality that women are not coining through the political system in fair numbers and it is a statement that we want that to change. It is also the means which allows action to take place to encourage that to happen in a simple and practical way.

Every issue and every policy has an impact on women in our country. If we are to create good laws and effective policies, those must reflect the needs and concerns of our whole society. Women comprise 50 per cent of the population and almost 50 per cent of the workforce. They remain the primary carers of children and elderly relatives. They are the main users and key front-line deliverers of our health and education services. Over three-quarters of NHS staff and two-thirds of our teachers are women. They are the main users of local bus services. National surveys show that they are more concerned than men about safety on the streets and particularly about violent crime.

Women are often those members of society who feel the real practical effect, the practical ramifications of our laws. They do not necessarily do all the talking about policy but they certainly experience the results.

Yet if they look at our local councils and political institutions., women, and particularly young women, still see places that have very little to do with their daily reality. They still see, too, a sea of grey suits and are certainly disheartened by the yah-boo politics which seem irrelevant and childish to them, although, clearly, not in this place today.

The statistics have been well rehearsed, with just 18 per cent of women in the other place. And in local government, where many women begin their political careers, women still make up only 27 per cent of local councillors. Again, at a local level, those figures appear to have got stuck. In many ways, it is particularly important that we make progress at local government level because if we involve women at that point, there is a chance of bringing them through the process.

It is no surprise then that many women not only fail to see anything in the formal political arena which is meaningful to their lives but they also fail to see how they could possibly make any real difference themselves. And yet it is women who are leading in their local community groups; chairing the board of governors for their children's schools; leading their local residents association; and running the local playgroup. They are the rock, the foundations, of many of our local voluntary organisations and charities.

To be effective, our democracy and our political institutions need to make the connection between local, small "p" politics and the more formal political arena. That is the challenge facing all our political parties and, indeed, many of our national public bodies and national institutions too.

I firmly believe that a number of policies which this Government have adopted since 1997 have come about precisely because of the increased number of women MPs and women Ministers. We have, for example, improved maternity rights and pay. We are putting in place important measures to help parents—both mothers and increasingly fathers too—better to balance their work and family responsibilities. But in many policies, it is the emphasis in the detail, not the headlines, which have been influenced by the input of women. I strongly echo the view of my noble friend Lady Jay when she talked about women's approach to making policy being different: seeking consensus rather than scoring points.

It is appropriate that the Bill which we are supporting today is permissive not proscriptive and that decisions about particular measures are rightly left in the hands of individual political parties. It is appropriate that those changes are facilitated but not enforced by government. I am confident that in supporting this legislation, we are not only helping to increase the representation of women in public life but perhaps most important, we are greatly enhancing the quality of our democracy.

Finally, I believe that this Bill is proportionate and is in accordance with European law. I hope that we shall not lose the opportunity of taking action quickly which will affect our democratic institutions in the near future and move forward in the way that many other countries in the EU have done.

2.35 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, a number of noble Lords have identified the gross under-representation of women in our political system. Even though the general election gave the Liberal Democrat Party four new women MPs, they still make up less than 10 per cent of our parliamentary party, which makes me very uncomfortable. Overall, women represent less than 18 per cent of Parliament as a whole, as the noble Baroness. Lady Morgan, has just pointed out. This under-representation is bad for all political parties. It is bad for democracy and disconnects large sections of the community from the political process.

The Bill before us is about the principle which allows us the methods, commitments and working culture that we need to develop in order to remove the gross under-representation of women. The questions we need to ask are how, within the framework of values and beliefs on equality, have we produced such a discrepancy and why women do not reflect their representation in the community. It has been often pointed out that if women constitute 50 per cent of our population, why is that not reflected in our political and public institutions? Surely, that is the minimum target for which we should be aiming.

The existing system is unlikely to achieve that: in fact, it works to the disadvantage of women. Targets are not unlawful. If effective steps are taken to remove direct and indirect discrimination, and if positive action is taken under the sex discrimination legislation, there is no reason why the percentage of women should not increase significantly. If that is the minimum that we can achieve, then we are on the right track.

The main aim of positive action is to make equal opportunity a reality. Unfortunately, the general election has demonstrated that, despite that provision, we have not achieved a balanced representation of women. If, therefore, we have failed, should we not try to put it right? We must aim for special measures that will make that possible. In my party we have tried shadowing and mentoring, and we have allocated extra financial resources. We have even developed a zipping system to save our blushes. But these measures have failed to deliver equality of outcomes.

Two years ago I chaired a working party in my own party looking at policies and practices and how we could remove all the obstacles that could hinder the advancement of women within the process that we adopted. That has not helped. I trust that this Bill will go some way in assisting us. We now have a framework of new legislation which was long overdue.

At this stage perhaps I may pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, whose contributions I have always appreciated on this particular matter. I hope that her new duties will not prevent her from speaking in the House on this subject.

A new law permitting political parties to undertake affirmative action is a declaration of public policy. We need that strong and effective law within the framework of the Sex Discrimination Act. No amount of statistical information will make me believe that we have been fair in terms of female representation in our political system. It has been pointed out that other western countries have positive action programmes. A country such as India is not ashamed of establishing a 30 per cent quota for women members.

We now need to ensure that changes can happen now that the Government have given this particular lead. All political parties have to re-examine the practical implications to ensure that what we do is not only lawful, but that the outcomes justify the actions we have taken. Do not let others frighten us in the action we should take. The law will encourage vital change in the attitudes and actions of individual men and women. It will help to break down the barriers and exclusions and enable the best use of the nation's resources where women have contributed so much and have received so little in return.

It is beyond doubt that one conspicuous area in which we have yet to make a significant contribution is gender equality. As a result, all political parties have attracted considerable public criticism both as regards the processes employed and the outcome achieved. That should be of no surprise to any of us. There is no need to be squeamish about it. There is no doubt that if we resolve this issue, the equality of outcome for ethnic minorities will be a logical step forward.

There is a danger that positive action is often confused with positive discrimination. Positive action does not mean accepting lower standards. That is often the argument advanced in race cases. Positive action does not mean quotas, but removing past disadvantages which women have suffered. Positive action means creating a level playing field and providing education, welfare and training, which will allow women to compete from the same starting point.

The present Bill will help but let us not make a mistake, Parliament itself has to change. It has to look at practices and procedures which disadvantage women. We have to accept that women have shared needs, separate needs and special needs. Those differences enhance, not damage, our democratic process. The concept of gender equality can be extraordinarily difficult to comprehend in a society where the processes are inevitably and for reasons of history in the hands of a single, dominant male culture. That will have to change. Now is the time to ensure that we do precisely that. This legislation on gender equality points that way, but I hope that this is a small step forward. Once we establish a pattern of success in the political arena, we need to take forward the principle of equality for women in all walks of public life.

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

My Lords, it is now well over a century since the movement for equal rights for women began. We all remember with deep admiration Pankhurst the Equaliser. The aim of the movement was clear—women to have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges that men enjoyed and to have the right to be part of decision-making.

The very fact that this Bill is before us today shows that the issue remains a problem. The question today is, how is this problem to be solved? It is quite obvious that there has been gross discrimination against women in all aspects of life. Over time our man-made laws have perpetuated that discrimination. That is one good reason for supporting the Bill. It cannot be unfair if we seek to redress the balance by any legitimate means necessary. There need to be changes in the laws and practices that govern our institutions to convince not only men but also some women that equality will not just happen but has to be addressed—hence the Bill today seeking affirmative action.

The case for affirmative action is clear. In the history of mankind runs a thread of much repeated injury and absurdity as regards what women can and cannot do. History also testifies to the patient sufferance of women under male dominated governance which in the 21st century leaves women in the position where they are forced to seek affirmative action in order to achieve the equal status to which we all agree they are entitled. That is the second good reason for the Bill.

It is not difficult to understand why women have not attained true equality with men in the political arena. Men do not truly believe that women have the intellect to occupy seats of power. Alas, some women do not themselves believe it even though some have broken the glass ceiling by demonstrating their remarkable abilities. I think of the well known song, "You'll lake the high road and I'll take the low road and I'll be in Scotland afore ye". Why should women be forced to take the high road with its many bumps and bruises when all that is needed to make the low road accessible is to appreciate that prejudices need a little help to get rid of them?

We are all acquainted with the notion of handicaps in horse racing. Women are not asking for men to be given extra burdens; they are saying that to make the playing field even you must recognise the deep-seated prejudices that exist which have allowed men a long tradition of men only lists. The public get the best man for the job. However, taking affirmative action would give the voter the choice of the best person for the job.

On a personal level I feel able to support the Bill because of the double discrimination meted out to women of colour. Both as a woman and a black person it is difficult for me to see how these twin prejudices could be overcome without some form of direct action from the law. Here I must remind the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that the Bakke case has never been conclusive.

The qualities brought by women to the political arena would be unique. Men do not need to feel threatened by women. When women take their rightful place alongside men, healthy, honest and robust debates will truly enrich the political agenda. The break-through now needs a final push. Affirmative action from the political parties can no longer be left on a low burner. We need to take all the legitimate measures necessary to eliminate discrimination from the public and political life of our country, as set out by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Some progress has been made but it has not fully worked. It needs a little push, which I believe this Bill will provide.

Both education and laws that are enforceable are needed to overcome deep-seated prejudice. That is why I ask noble Lords to take today, without any frills or statistics, noble and gallant action to end discrimination by supporting affirmative action to redress the balance. That would be the right thing to do, and that is why I welcome this Bill.

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, I begin by stating that I am very much in favour of taking positive action. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Ildlicote, and my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton, I am sad that it is still necessary to do so; but it is still necessary. As my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford said in the other place, there is, chronic under-representation of women in all our elected bodies".—[Official Report. Commons, 14/11/01; col. 900.] and that this Bill will go some way towards making our democracy more representative and should also redress gross inequalities which work against women being chosen as candidates.

This Bill has been designed to remove the uncertainties created by what has come to be known—it has been referred to before today—as the Jepson judgment. I served on the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1996, when the employment tribunal ruled that all-women shortlists were illegal and Mr Jepson for a brief period of time became a celebrity. Both the commissioners and the staff of the EOC hoped that there would be an appeal against the judgment, but understood why the Labour Party felt that it could not appeal at that time.

Since 1996, political parties have been very wary of using positive action to reduce gender inequalities. This Bill should set at rest the minds of those who want to take positive steps for more women in Parliament. The sunset clause to measure its effectiveness, or otherwise, can eventually be reviewed and, if necessary, amended.

I followed the debate in the other place with interest. There were some excellent speeches and some strange ones. One female honourable Member claimed that the Labour Party wanted to use the Bill to debar a man from being selected even when he had far greater merit as a candidate. That is really not so. As others have said, the Bill aims to create a level playing field for men and women—no more, no less.

The same honourable Member went on to criticise trade unions in a speech which I am afraid showed a sad lack of understanding of the trade union movement. Today I want to speak about how the trade union movement has changed and taken positive steps to improve the lot of women. Here I declare an interest as a former member of the TUC General Council and a senior official of the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union. There have, of course, been close links for decades between women in the unions and women in political parties. Women trade unionists were active campaigners for votes for women, believing that women's voices in Parliament would make the legislation that was enacted more sympathetic to and positive for women workers. The woman who, above all others, interlinked women in the unions and in Parliament was Margaret Bondfield. She was a member of the shop assistants union, now known as USDAW. She was the first woman to chair the TUC general council, the first woman Labour MP—representing Northampton—in the House of Commons and the first woman member of the Cabinet, becoming Minister of Labour in 1928. The links between trade union women and political women were firmly established many years ago.

Why is that important for and linked to women's representation in Parliament? Because unions have an important influence in the selection of and support for parliamentary candidates, especially, but not exclusively, in the Labour Party. I want to illustrate the importance of positive action by discussing the steps that the TUC, rather than its affiliates, has taken to improve women's representation and its effects.

Currently, out of 46 members of the TUC general council, 12 are women. That is approximately 24 per cent, which tallies roughly with the percentage of women in trade unions. That increase from what was for many years a token number of women—that is, two—to the figure of 12 today did not happen by chance. It happened because when Norman Willis was general-secretary of the TUC, he recognised two things. First, he recognised that unions needed to increase women's membership, because women were becoming an increasingly important part of the workforce. If women were not recruited into the unions, a potentially important and influential part of the workforce would be isolated from the main body of trade unionism, thus weakening the unions. In turn, women would be alienated from the unions.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Norman Willis is a man who genuinely believes in equality between the sexes. He recognised the injustice of women being represented at only the lower echelons of the trade union movement. So Norman introduced positive action. That did not happen without opposition from the gentlemen serving on the general council at the time, but that was overcome. Positive action took the form that every union that was affiliated to the TUC and with more than 100,000 members had an automatic extra seat on the TUC general council, and that seat had to be filled by a woman member. Undoubtedly, that changed the TUC fundamentally. Not only were women on the general council; they were also on each and every sub-committee. Their voices were heard. Above all, they became role models for other women in their own and other unions.

Since that time of change, the TUC has continued to pioneer on behalf of women trade unionists. It has established an organising academy that is training new generations of trade unionists—organisers in the unions—who will aim to recruit women members and young people in particular. Many of those new organisers are women.

The more that women become involved in the unions, the more they are likely to become active at a national level and involved in political work, including standing for Parliament. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. Positive action is needed not because women are not good enough to be selected as candidates on their own merit but because the discrimination that they face ensures that only too often they do not get a chance to try.

Finally, I firmly believe that only when 50 per cent of the other place comprises women can we say that it truly reflects our nation's needs and aspirations.

2.55 p.m.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, the Bill is not about favouritism, unfair discrimination or patronising gestures for women. It simply recognises the fact that women form the majority of people in this country but are very under-represented in many of our elected institutions. It is about giving political parties more opportunities to counter the discrimination suffered by women which means that many of those institutions fail to be properly representative of the people who elect them.

I think that the Bill's non-prescriptive approach is right. It could be very dangerous for government or Parliament to take too much control over how political parties choose their candidates. But it will be of assistance to all parties if legal barriers to making their candidates more representative of the country as a whole are lowered.

The Bill will help to address one of the many areas holding back fair representation of women although I believe that many more fundamental issue are also relevant. Those issues involve disposable income, time availability and voting systems as well as working practices, the image and culture of the institutions, and confidence and experience.

The issues of disposable income and time availability are, I believe, particularly pertinent in my own party in that we do not have "safe seats" to allocate and our candidates generally have to work far harder and for far longer for a chance of electoral success—and our party has relatively little finance to support them.

The Bill is necessary because there are certainly elements of both covert and overt discrimination in political parties. My noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill referred to this point. It must be tackled perhaps through existing sex and racial discrimination. It is very hard sometimes to see how that legislation can be applied when people have private thoughts which are not recorded in a secret ballot. Sadly, I still hear people in my own party saying about a particular seat, "A woman could never be elected". The evidence is now to the contrary. Polling evidence suggests that men are no longer less likely to vote for a woman than for a man. But some women are more likely to vote for a woman than for a man. So it should be an electoral advantage to be a woman. Sadly, discrimination remains. Different remedies may he put forward by different parties for different electoral systems.

For example, my party agreed to put forward for the last European elections a mechanism known as "zipping". The system allowed both women and men to become MEPs but ensured that half of those elected would be women and half of them men. At 49 per cent it was the highest proportion of female candidates ever put forward for a national election by a major political party in Great Britain. Last week, Diana Wallis, MEP, became the first female leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European Parliament.

However, we faced the threat of a potentially expensive legal challenge over our candidate selection process. We received conflicting advice from eminent and sometimes noble sources. The advice that we followed ultimately came in part from no less a person than Cherie Booth, QC. Her advice was to the effect that we would win in Europe but that the Sex Discrimination Act was a problem for us in domestic law. While I am sure that noble Lords opposite would not have dared to question such an authority as Cherie Booth, QC, there were those in our party who, we feared, could almost bankrupt the party with huge legal costs, even if they would fail ultimately in their challenge.

I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, that if enacted the Bill would not prevent all legal challenges to this or other gender balancing mechanisms in the future. However, it would remove much of the ground from under those who sought to oppose what my party did for the European elections and those who sought to oppose the Labour Party's chosen mechanism for selecting candidates for the general election in 1997.

International experience suggests that positive action of some kind is an essential part of ensuring fairer representation of women in elected institutions. But it is my firm view that such mechanisms may fit in much more easily with electoral systems that are not based entirely on single member constituencies.

Systems of proportional representation undoubtedly tend to make for much fairer representation of women, as well as of political opinions. I am not an enthusiast for list systems, especially the closed variety. But lists make it easier and more desirable for a party to balance the tickets of the candidates they present.

I ask the Government to think again about the issue of open lists for the next European elections. It is particularly relevant to this debate to note what happened, for example, in relation to open lists in the parliamentary elections in Finland. When the parties all placed their favoured men for the top places on top of their lists, the women voters simply crossed out the names of the men and the women further down the list were elected instead. When the parties realised that they were losing all their best men through their actions, they had to mend their ways and put a balance of women and men at the top of their lists in order for their best people to be elected. That type of system puts power where it belongs—with the people and not with the parties.

Countries with systems of proportional representation tend to have far higher representation by women. It is not a coincidence that Sweden with 43 per cent of female MPs, Denmark with 37 per cent, Finland with 36 per cent, the Netherlands with 36 per cent and Germany with 31 per cent all have such a system in place.

I believe that the single transferable vote system would be eminently suitable for any election to your Lordships' House in the future. It would encourage parties to put forward men and women in multi-member constituencies. It would almost certainly mean that far more women would be elected than under the present Westminster system where effectively there is a closed list of one person from each party. Only one is elected, and this June in 82 per cent of constituencies that person was a man.

The Bill would also help parties to establish mechanisms to assist fair representation of women if ever, for example, the scheme put forward by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Alexander of Weedon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, were allowed to be judged by the electorate and then introduced. Parties could choose, for example, a majority of candidates from one gender in their single-member seats and then introduce a balance in whichever way was required by putting on top of the top-up list a person of the different gender.

Many things must be done to address the issue of the inadequate representation of women, especially in the House of Commons. If parties fail to do so, they will ignore much of the considerable ability that should be available to them and to the country, they will skew the issues that are considered, and they will hinder their own electoral prospects in future by failing to show themselves as being representative of the country. This Bill will help to remove some of the barriers to taking action to make our legislatures and council chambers more effective, more representative and, in many ways, more sensible than they are now.

3.2 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, it is a delight to take part in this passionate debate in which the other speakers—noble Lords from all sides of the House—have for a significant part of their working lives been engaged in policy-making and, in some cases, policy-shaking to the benefit of women.

Given that this is the last debate on the last clay before the Recess, I hope that my Christmas shopping list will not get mixed up with my speaking notes. I hope that I shall be stopped if I start to call for pickled anchovies instead of positive action.

First, I warmly welcome the Bill. I am delighted that my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House has opened and will be closing the debate. His presence sends the clearest signal, if one were needed, that this Government are greatly committed to the Bill. I also want to place on record my acknowledgement of the tremendous work undertaken in the creation and development of the Bill by my noble friends Lady Jay of Paddington and Lady Morgan.

The inclusion of the Bill in the Queen's Speech was greeted by the EOC as "a turning point in history". Since the Bill progressed through its various stages in another place, we have seen a consensus build both within and without Parliament on the need for far more radical measures to ensure greater representation of women in political decision-making than is the case at present.

Glancing at the report of the Committee stage of the Bill in another place, I was pleased to see that, despite a rather lengthy discourse on whether Cornish men and women feel the same way about female representation as their East Anglian counterparts, a bizarre and fleeting reference to Gladstone, and whether gender equality was ever a consideration in our recent internal elections for the remaining hereditary Peers, the right honourable Member Nick Raynsford was able to say that the Committee stage had been short but effective and had engendered a general spirit of agreement. At the Bill's Third Reading in another place the honourable Member, Dr Alan Whitehead, speaking for the Government, said: It is a cause for celebration that the Bill's Third Reading will not be subject of a Division. That shows the strong commitment from all parties that they will take action to ensure that the House is properly representative of everyone in the country".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/11/01; col. 917.] Like the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, I have confidence that such an all-party consensus will also emerge through deliberations on the Bill in this House.

As chair of the Women's National Commission I have received many expressions of support for the Bill from women's organisations across the country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, women in this country are the backbone of the voluntary sector and their voices should be heard to a far greater extent than they are at present. Political representation at local, national, regional and international level will assist in telling the story of women's great enrichment of our society far more clearly.

It has been my pleasure, as chair of the Women's National Commission, to write to leaders of opposition parties to ask them to confirm their support for the Bill. From the right honourable Lain Duncan Smith, MP, Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, I have received an encouraging reply that states: I certainly agree that we need to find effective ways of ensuring that able women candidates get the opportunities they deserve". While not favouring all-women shortlists, he goes on to say that he looks forward to ensuring that the Conservative Party is able to attract and properly support—that is very important—able women candidates. Other replies are pending.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, is a beacon on the road to women's equality in this country. I am inclined to the view of other noble Lords that the way in which the Bill has been written will mean that it will steer a strong legal course.

Despite the fair wind that the Bill has so far received, there will be those in all parties who still need to be persuaded. Two arguments that are often put forward by those who oppose any form of positive action are, first, that special measures such as twinning, zipping, all-women shortlists, or even extra training and support, somehow sap away talent and merit. Yet those same opponents will never acknowledge the lack of a level playing field, referred to by my noble friend Lady Howells.

The lack of a level playing field affects talented women not being able to access candidate opportunities because there is a whole range of factors that affect them more acutely than their male counterparts. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made what I believe is an apposite point, that we have to start by looking at the vulnerable position of women in the labour market. There are also cultural influences that militate against women, some of which have been excellently portrayed this afternoon, and often the unwieldy structure of our party organisations militate very much against women.

We end up with what the EOC describes, after interviewing 400 male and female candidates at the last election, as the key problem of the apparent unwillingness of constituency parties to select women candidates who relate to the parties best prospect seats. As the EOC sees it, and as several noble Lords see it, the key is that the best prospect seats are jealously guarded in relation to women's opportunities.

The figures are fairly damning and actually answer the second argument that opponents of special measures frequently raise, which is that "not enough women come forward for selection". In the three main political parties, plenty of women came forward for the seats of retiring MPs at the last election and for the most winnable seats. Yet again and again the selectorate in each of those seats chose a male candidate until only a small minority of those best prospect seats went to successful women candidates. Were all those unsuccessful women just not up to it? I think not. Was some unspoken indirect, perhaps even unconscious, discrimination at work? I definitely think so.

We have in the Bill a real opportunity to begin tackling the long-standing barriers that face women in the political process. We have an opportunity to climb from our inglorious place of 33rd in the world's league table, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, said. While we rightly speak about the possibilities for women—for instance in Afghanistan—we must look to our own shop and our own house. We have the opportunity and the chance with the Bill to shine as a modern Parliament, in touch with its diverse electorate. Therefore, when people see their politicians at work, they will see reflections of themselves—male and female, younger and older, people from minority ethnic communities and people with disabilities. All parties are rightly concerned at the lower election turnouts and some evidence of voter alienation from the political process is at work. Engaging more women in politics will inevitably mean engaging more of our communities in the democratic process.

Finally, I went to the Library for inspiration for today's debate. I discovered—not by physically counting them I hasten to add—that, of the 60,000 books in the House of Lords Library, 18 contained the word "woman" in the title and 191 contained the word "women". Let us hope that our influence on the political and historical culture of Parliament will be far greater in the future as a result of the Bill.

3.13 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, this is the first Bill on which I have spoken where I have had several people come up to me in advance to ask me what I shall say. So it is very comforting to know that several Members of your Lordships' House are avidly waiting to hear what I have to say.

I rise to make a short contribution. It is not my intention to discuss the merits of the Bill as such. Rather I wish to address the principle that underpins the Bill and consider the consequences deriving from that principle.

I have the honour to chair the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House. The committee has reported on the Bill. The report does not address the merits of the Bill but instead considers the Bill in relation to the principle of representation. I want to develop the points adumbrated in the committee's report.

The Bill that is before us cannot be discussed or justified simply or solely in terms of equal opportunities. If that were the case, the provisions of the Bill would not extend to Northern Ireland. Responsibility for equal opportunities has been transferred under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. What distinguishes the Bill, and the reason that it extends to Northern Ireland, is that it involves elections. Fundamental to elections is the concept of representation.

The Bill derives from a certain view of representation. That view is implicit rather than explicit. There is a House of Commons Library research paper on the Bill. As with other such research papers produced by the Commons Library, it is an excellent document. The paper considers women's representation in the United Kingdom and elsewhere and identifies different methods of increasing the representation of women in the House of Commons and other parliamentary bodies in the United Kingdom.

At no point, however, does it address the principle that underpins the Bill. It takes it as given that the number of women in the House of Commons and other elected assemblies should be increased. My purpose is not to argue that that number should not be increased, but rather to argue that we need to be clear about the principle that justifies that increase.

The justification normally offered for an increase is that women are presently under-represented in the other place—for convenience, I shall focus on the other place—as well as in the other bodies covered by the Bill. I shall quote from the House of Commons Library research paper: Women are still poorly represented in UK politics". The key word is "represented". The Labour Party manifesto for the last election argues the case for legislation in order to increase the representation of women". We have heard similar comments throughout this debate. The case for change is built on the belief that the House of Commons should be a representative Assembly.

I doubt whether many people would argue with the proposition that the House of Commons should be a representative institution. The problem is that the concept of representation is subject to different definitions, which are briefly outlined in the Constitution Committee report.

One definition of representation is that it denotes people who speak on behalf of others. That has been the definition that has underpinned the development of Parliament—indeed, it is at the root of the emergence of the House of Commons. Members were originally drawn from particular communities in order to speak on behalf of those communities. The House of Commons was a representative Assembly even before the concept itself developed. That definition of representation continues to underpin the House of Commons. A Member of Parliament is deemed to act on behalf of all constituents, regardless of whether or not they voted for the Member.

A second definition of representation, which gained greater currency during and since the 19th century, is that of a body that is freely elected. That definition may be taken to encompass not only the method of election but also who does the electing. The House of Commons, under that definition, is a representative Assembly because all adult citizens now have the vote and can choose who they wish to serve them in Parliament. It is that definition which justified the various measures of the 19th and 20th centuries that widened the franchise. It can also be taken to underpin measures to widen the choice available to electors. Widening the eligibility to stand for election can he justified on grounds of equal opportunities, but may also be justified because it widens the freedom of choice of the electors.

A third definition of representation, and one central to this debate, is that it denotes a group that is socially typical. It is in that sense that market researchers refer to a representative sample. It is that definition that forms the basis for the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to enable parties, should they wish to do so. to make certain arrangements that will facilitate the return of a greater number of women than before to the House of Commons. Why? Because, as we have heard throughout the debate, although women constitute just over 50 per cent of the adult population, only 18 per cent of the members of the House of Commons are women. The implication—indeed, it has been made explicit in this debate—is that, if they constitute at least half of the population, they should constitute half, or something approaching half, of the membership of the House of Commons.

A fourth definition, on which I shall not dwell, is that of symbolism. The Queen, for example, represents the unity of the nation. That use of the term is not central to the debate, although some might argue that the number of women in Parliament has been little more than symbolic.

It is, then, the third definition—representation as denoting a socially typical body—that is employed to justify the Bill. It is important that we recognise that explicitly, because it raises important questions. That definition does not necessarily conflict with the other definitions, but it is not necessarily compatible with them either. One might pose the question of whether it runs counter to the post-1832 trend of widening the category of those eligible for election. In so far as it may restrict a certain category of citizens in seeking election, as party candidates, to the House of Commons, it may be argued to do so. I appreciate that there is a counter argument; one which may be taken to justify the Bill.

More significantly, as the report of my committee notes, the Bill sets a precedent. If the Bill is predicated on the belief that the membership of the House of Commons should be socially typical, that has enormous consequences for our approach to the selection and election of parliamentary candidates. The House of Commons is atypical in its membership not only in respect of sex but also in respect of many other characteristics. Those include age, physical ability, ethnicity and prior occupation. There are others, some of which are observable and immediately measurable, some of which are not.

The logic of the case underpinning the Bill is that those various groupings should have some of their number in the House of Commons, arguably in proportion to their number in society. If one concedes the case for a socially typical House, or a more socially typical House, one has to ask how such a House can be achieved. In short: is a socially typical House of Commons desirable? Is it achievable?

The first concept of representation I mentioned is silent as to who can act on behalf of others. It was argued initially that one could speak on behalf of a particular body without being drawn from that body or indeed without being elected by that body. The latter assumption is no longer made; it has been superseded by the second definition of representation. However, the former assumption—that someone can speak on behalf of others without being drawn from the same group—is still argued. MPs who are men will claim that they can speak for all their constituents; MPs who are women will claim that they can speak for all their constituents.

Why, then, should we seek to fashion a House of Commons that is socially typical? I ask the question not in order to challenge the Bill but rather to ensure that we proceed on the basis of a clear, rigorous argument. If we can articulate, fully and persuasively, the case for the Bill on the ground of a clear principle, that strengthens the Bill enormously. Having articulated that principle, we then need to think through the consequences. If the Bill derives from the belief that a representative House of Commons equals a socially typical House, we need to be aware that the Bill does not constitute the end of a process. It is very much the beginning of one. The question I therefore put to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House is: where to from here?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Norton, sits down, I wonder whether he will answer a question. Why does he say that the justification for the Bill is that the House of Commons should be socially typical rather than that every individual candidate, as an individual human being, should be treated on his or her merits, irrespective of gender, and that the Bill is designed to achieve that by taking proportionate, positive measures to enable each individual human being to be treated in that way rather than having approved quotas?

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I do not argue with that because there is a powerful argument to that effect. My point was that the Bill has been argued in terms of representation. That term has been used throughout; for example, that women are under-represented in the House of Commons. I was merely addressing the issue from that perspective and arguing that if one is taking that line—and I was silent on the merits of the Bill—and if one is arguing from the concept of representation—that is not the only argument one can take and I did not mean to suggest that it was—one must be clear as to the principle on the basis of which one is arguing. I was arguing solely within the confines of that concept.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, I regret that no one has asked me what I am going to say but I am going to say it just the same! I welcome and support the legislation. It is only a short Bill but it has the potential, over the years, to have a profound effect on the culture not only of Parliament but possibly also of local councils. In turn, it will have a profound effect on the British way of life. Notwithstanding what the media and commentators might say, I still believe that parliaments, whether on the international, European, nation state or local council level, still have a major impact and influence on the fabric of our society. We only need an event like the tragedy of September 11th to see how much we still rely on collective action; that the individualism sought by society is not supreme; and that we need to work together at different levels.

The legislation before the House will provide a much-needed opportunity for more women to enter politics, to get into Parliament and local councils. They will be more fairly represented than is the case at the moment. Furthermore, women will be able to become leaders and gain more influence, both in our own society and throughout the world. I shall return to that fundamental point in a moment. I believe that that will be for the betterment of us all, men included. I submit that that is the case for change. That is also my response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, as regards the fundamental reason for the legislation.

To pick up on the noble Lord's second point, I believe that the Bill could also pave the way for under-representation in national politics to be tackled on other grounds. In due course, is there any reason why, if ethnic minority groups wanted it, we should not address the possibility of making changes in representation at council and parliamentary level to meet their needs? Is there a case, if they want it, for the many millions in our society with disabilities who feel that they are not necessarily properly represented in debate at both local and national level, similarly to argue that changes should be made in our approach? I freely admit that those proposals are well down the line and may never happen. but there is the possibility that this small Bill could provide the foundation from which substantial developments could take place.

I am pleased that the legislation will be permissive and not prescriptive. We should not force parties to do things that they do not want to do, even if we believe that those are the right things to do.

The use of women-only shortlists by Labour in the period 1993–96 was extremely successful in turning around the way we selected and brought people into Parliament. We had not witnessed a change on that scale before. I was a strong supporter of the shortlists. It also demonstrated the clear divide that exists between some of the political parties—here I refer to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I do not want to be unduly political about it because I believe that we are seeking consensus here, but the shortlists demonstrated a clear divide between ourselves and the Conservative Party. However, this is a difficult area and changes are needed. If they are not effected, not only will certain groups be perceived as slow to move on, they may even find themselves left behind.

Yesterday I read in this month's Parliamentary Monitor that the Conservatives are starting to face up to the need for change: "The Tory Party is considering introducing quotas requiring parliamentary shortlists to be made up equally of men and women in a bid to increase the number of female MPs. The move was backed by the Conservative Women's National Council, which met last month. Gillian Shephard. the former cabinet minister. has been given the task of increasing the number of female MPs". I do not make my contribution in any critical sense as regards the Conservative Party, because I regret the problems which currently it has to face. However, I do not envy Gillian Shephard's task because the evidence of the Labour Party's recent experience is that, while one can aim for a 50:50 split on a shortlist, it does not produce the opportunity for more women MPs to come into Parliament. As I have said, that has been our experience from the last election onwards. I fear that if the Conservatives go down that route, it may turn out to be too little, too late. However, under the Bill it is left for parties to make up their own minds on the best way forward.

My own experience of the difficult issue of positive action derives from my background in the trade union movement where, when I first went in, it was very Much "the brothers" with relatively little mention of "the sisters". As my noble friend Lady Gibson has demonstrated, life there is changing to some degree but, looking back, even there it has been difficult to make headway without some kind of strong, positive action.

In the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, of which I was general-secretary for a number of years, more than 60 per cent of our members were women and less than 40 per cent were males. Yet, when one looked at what was happening in the union, it was overwhelmingly the males who held the levers of power at almost every level. It proved very difficult to introduce changes, especially when one looked at the real areas of power at executive council and executive council sub-committee level. It was a real uphill struggle to get a better balance between the genders.

I have often thought that if the Tories had adopted a different approach in relation to the Thatcher employment legislation—particularly in respect of elections of executive councils and so on—and had taken into account the need to ensure that there was better representation between the genders on important decision-taking bodies such as executive councils, and if they had framed their legislation accordingly, there may have been some interesting out-turns, from a variety of standpoints, which would have been beneficial not only to them but to the trade union movement and to women in particular.

We have made big progress in many areas within the trade union movement but there remain some areas where there are substantial opportunities—and a need—for change to be effected. My noble friend Lady Dean may say more on this. There is still work to be done by the present Government on the issue of elections and representation of membership within unions. I log the point for them. Perhaps they may come to it in due course.

During my time as general-secretary, it was my experience that when we managed to get change and women were able to gain entry into, particularly, sub-committees that had power, which had been hitherto the exclusive preserve of men, we found that there was a remarkable change in the way in which we worked and developed our policies. I make no bones about it, rather like my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington, I went through a conversion. As a result of my experience there, I became a convert to, and a strong supporter of, positive action—notwithstanding the difficulties that we may encounter from time to time with a bit of legislation here and there that may be used by others against us. The reality is that it works in practice and produces good results.

There were, of course, accusations that, by using positive action, we were being patronising. I must admit, I took that rather hard. It was difficult when one felt that one was trying to effect change but was being accused of being patronising. Unfortunately, much of that criticism came from women. The accusations from men were on the other side—that is, that we were being discriminatory and grossly unfair on them. The fact that they controlled most of the levers of power seemed to escape them. But those were the allegations.

I was pleased that the Labour Party faced up to similar difficulties when it was reviewing its way forward and considering how it might get more women Labour MPs into Parliament. It was bold enough to override that kind of criticism. I pay tribute to my noble friends Lady Jay, Lady Morgan and others who have been closely associated with keeping the flag flying and getting back, I hope, to the position that we held between 1992 and 1996.

I hope that we will continue to be bold, notwithstanding objections which may be raised on the legal front. What we are about is a kind of social engineering. I know that that is much despised and ridiculed by some people, but I do not think that it is a bad thing in a world that is driven by markets and circumstances in which the winners take all. We could possibly do with a little more social engineering. The Bill will be welcomed particularly by women and, I hope, by most men too. I hope that it will come into force and that we shall see the changes that so many of us want to witness.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. It is permissive, short, simple and long awaited. I am delighted, and feel privileged, to take part in a debate with noble Lords—indeed, friends—on all sides of the House who have spent a great deal of their lives working in this area and pushing forward the cause of women. My colleagues are not speaking out of ideology but from their own "feet-on-the-ground" experience.

I see the Bill as a start in tackling, not a solution to, the problem. I do not think that any of us are kidding ourselves that when the Bill becomes an Act—as it appears will happen given the degree of consensus—it is to be hoped, unamended, it will all be easy sailing. It will not.

Through all the various changes for women, it has never been easy. When women received the vote in 1928—when many of us were not even thought of their idea was: "Now we really are going to make a change". That did not happen in many respects. I remember Barbara Castle—one of my heroines—being castigated in another place in 1975 for introducing the Equal Pay Act. It was said that all women in work would lose their jobs and that the legislation would not help women. The same was true of the sex discrimination legislation. I am not making a political point, but when Mrs Thatcher was elected Prime Minister much as I did not agree for political reasons—I felt that now we might see women in the Cabinet and that they would drive forward policies for women. We were, of course, dreadfully disappointed. Therefore, the Bill is essential. I hope that it will become law.

Reference was made to the judgment that found the Labour Party to be acting illegally in introducing all-women short-lists. The law may have been right and the Labour Party may have been wrong, but the blunt fact is that the present outcome was essential. That is why, down the corridor in another place, 23 per cent of members of the party in government are now women.

The problem lies in ensuring that progress is maintained. Past experience indicates that things start to go wrong when it comes to succession. We saw that at the last general election, not just in one party but across all three. We have seen the same in the trade union movement. The movement is not covered by the Bill, but—who knows?—if the Bill is a success there may be just cause in the future.

I was privileged to sit on the TUC General Council as a general secretary elected by my union. One-third of the membership were women. There were two other women general secretaries on the council at that time: Liz Symons, as she was then known, the very able Deputy Leader of this House, and Diana Warwick, who is also now a Member on these Benches. None of us was replaced by a woman general secretary. We see that kind of development in all the various agencies in our community. However, if we do not start to make a change where we can—as a Parliament—the necessary changes will not come about.

I have known the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, who is also a friend, more years than I care to mention. I shall not embarrass either myself or the noble Baroness by stating the number of years. We worked together through the Women's National Commission, pushing forward women's issues. We both genuinely felt that we were making progress. Now, when I look back, 25 years later, I see that we were making progress, but with insufficient speed. More importantly, we were not able to bed the roots of that progress so that the involvement of women became a way of public life.

I too have read the reports of the Bill's various stages in the other House. People may have been too embarrassed to oppose the Bill outright, but all kinds of silly reasons have been put forward. One Member from the party that I am proud to be a member of argued, "How dare you stop a good man coming forward". He assumed that there were no good women. One honourable lady from the main Opposition party said that there was no need to do it this way because there were other ways. I heard that argument many years ago, but nobody has ever explained what the other ways are and no other ways have worked.

I shall not take up any more of the House's time. I wish the Bill good speed. I hope that there will be a consensus behind it and that it will not be amended. It will then be incumbent on the political parties, under the permissive aspects of the Bill, to start to embed it in their own organisations and make it a way of life.

3.41 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, like everyone who has spoken, I welcome the Bill. It is encouraging that that welcome has come from all round the House. We hope that that will continue as the Bill progresses through its stages.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, I praise the two women Ministers who piloted the Bill from its initial stages. It is good that they are here today. They were aware that timing is very important for the Bill. It is important that we get it through in order to be able to make changes at the relevant party conferences if the political parties so choose so that the details of the Bill can be implemented. Even if changes are not made in Scotland and Wales, I hope that parties there will take note of the existence of the legislation and maintain their high levels of women representatives.

I am pleased that we now have a date for the Committee stage—21st January, in case it is not already in noble Lords' diaries. Like other speakers, I regret that the legislation is necessary. Overt discrimination and sexual harassment are still prevalent in our political parties. Attitudes have barely changed since the days, an awful long time ago, when I considered being a parliamentary candidate. On one occasion I was asked, on entering the room, "Whose wife are you?". At another selection for a safe seat I was told that I lost by one vote I was the best candidate, but I looked too fragile. I do not think that anybody could ever accuse me of that, physically or in any other way. The man who told me was embarrassed and had to give some reason.

The evidence from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society clearly illustrates that many well qualified and able women are not being selected because of the prejudice that is still ingrained in the process, as so many others have already said. That attitude has to change. I am sorry to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, but we cannot wait. We have waited an awful long time for attitudes to change. It is not going to happen with any great speed. Positive action is crucial and it is urgently needed if women are to win winnable seats.

Other speakers have talked about the measures taken by other European countries. I shall not repeat those arguments. I have only one point to make on that subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, quoted the position in France, where, at national level elections, parties can have their state funding cut if they do not field gender equity of candidates. Much as I would like to go down that road, I have a little problem with it, because it is a direct interference in the internal workings of political parties. I am not sure that we are ready for that yet.

I have recently rediscovered on my bookshelves a small book, just 23 pages long, called Rights of Women, by a man called J.R. Richardson. There is some coincidence in the name, which reminds me of Jo Richardson and her fight for women with a similar appeal. J. R. Richardson was a Chartist, and what is special about his book is that it was written in 1840 while he was in prison for his beliefs. He wrote that, based on the Bible, there was a strong case that women had a natural, civil and political right to participate fully in the affairs of the country. At the time, that was seditious propaganda; listening to some people, I fear that it is still considered seditious. Nevertheless, he argued that it was derogatory to the divine will,

for her to neglect so imperative a duty", and that arrangements had to be made to enable her to carry out that duty.

I wonder how J. R. Richardson would have felt about the slow progress that we have made and how he would have analysed the reasons for it. That is not to say. as other speakers have said, that there have not been various points in the past 150 years when we have felt that we were on our way to achieving J. R. Richardson's ideal, but it has been a very long process, and we have always to remember the endeavours of the many distinguished and the many ordinary women who over the years have contributed to that progress, slow as it has been.

The introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1975 raised great expectations that attitudes would change and that women would be appointed and elected to key decision-making bodies in Westminster. What was not expected was that, 25 years later, it would be necessary to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to achieve a part of that aim.

As the two former Ministers for Women said. we were also sufficiently naïve as Labour women to believe that the introduction of all-women shortlists, in 1997, and the presence of more women MPs would not only change the culture of our party, but reverberate throughout the other parties. We have learned a lesson: it was not to be.

A theme that has run throughout this debate is that the country cannot afford to under-use half its talent. Moreover, women's under-representation creates a distance between elected representatives and a proportion of the electorate. Women electors must be able to see Parliament as reflecting society generally. Although there is no such thing as a typical woman, just as there is no such thing as a typical man, what women have to say comes just as much from their age, race, sexuality and social circumstances as from their gender. Women parliamentarians do, however, make a difference in a whole range of issues. They bring an experience of different occupational backgrounds, different life experiences and, unfortunately, the almost distinct experience of having to balance work and home responsibilities.

There are many examples, as cited by my noble friend Lady Morgan, of the effects that women have had in the other place—the influence of women MPs. I am sure that, by a strategy of private intervention and behind-the-scenes pressures, there is a greater sensitivity to the impact of policies on the needs of women.

We are often told by opponents of positive action that there is not discrimination, but that women are "congenitally" unsuited to be a Minister or an MP—in the view of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit——or that there is a lack of women coming forward for selection. Scotland and Wales have proved that not to be true. Given the right environment in the political parties, women will come forward. There is a pool of talent composed of women who are engaged and active in their local communities, and we have to ensure that they take that one step further whether it is as local councillors or in Westminster.

Little has been said by your Lordships about the position in local government, but I should like to make one point about it. We talk about the small percentage of women councillors, at 26 per cent overall, but that is a false figure. It is false because it masks the real differences in different parts of the country, from 5 per cent in some local authorities to 55 per cent in others. We certainly have to do something about the 5 per cent. Just as the nature and style of working in the House of Commons must change, there must also be a reassessment of the culture of local government, which in many areas is still based on long traditions of male dominance and all that that means and goes with it.

I believe that this legislation is another step towards equality of elected representation and that ultimately, although not through this legislation, we need to go further. Achieving real equality means women being visible and active participants at all levels of decision-making, local and national, in the Civil Service, in the media, in the financial institutions, in industry and on public bodies. For me, that is the only guarantee of a proper functioning democracy.

Meanwhile, this legislation will allow political parties to introduce positive action mechanisms significantly to increase the proportion of women elected representatives. I hope that they will all do so, behaving proportionately and sensibly while in no way being diverted from the goal of achieving gender equality.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, it is now 83 years since women were given the vote and were allowed to enter Parliament. There is a document displayed only yards from here, in the Royal Gallery, recording the initiation of that process in 1884. I always show it to guests to this place when they are being given a tour.

It is also about 40 years since the contraceptive pill became commonplace and women started to take their rightful place in the workplace through having the opportunity to plan their families and careers alongside each other. And yet, as we have heard from the Leader of the House and others today, still only 18 per cent of our MPs are women.

Members of Parliament are, of course, only one type of political animal, albeit the kings and queens of the jungle. Other legislatures also have far too few women. However, I find it interesting, as does the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, that despite the fact that the majority of Members of your Lordships' House are appointed, the percentage here is even lower at 16 per cent. That indicates to me that there is a problem about women's political representation which is far wider than merely the problem of getting women elected.

I think it rather sad that there are not as many noble Lords on these Benches today as there are noble Baronesses. Discrimination, in all its manifestations, is a matter that should concern us all.

It is, of course, the under-representation of women that concerns us. I do not believe that any of the legislatures mentioned in the Bill have a problem with fair representation of men. Getting more women into Parliament is vital for our whole democracy. We have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Seccombe and Lady Howe, and my noble friend Lord Rennard how the lack of women in Parliament may have started to affect the turn-out of women in elections, particularly young women. We have heard also from my noble friend Lord Rennard how women, when they do choose to vote, have their own way of making their wishes known.

As my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood pointed out, international evidence shows that only proportionate, temporary, positive action has achieved the objective of bringing women in Parliament up to a critical mass. It is often said that you need at least one-third of women in an organisation to make a real difference to its culture. I believe that that is true. Those countries and we, in the UK, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, mentioned, have found that women make good MPs, MEPs, MSPs, assembly members and councillors, bringing their vital but different perspective to the deliberations of their assemblies. We must encourage awareness of and respect for difference.

The fact that Britain is 33rd in the world in the league table of women's representation is not something of which to be proud. My own party has had particular difficulty in achieving fair representation in the House of Commons, a matter that is of great concern to myself and all my noble friends. As we have heard, we share with all parties difficulty with replacing retiring male MPs with new women MPs. There are clearly many favourite sons but very few favourite daughters.

However, we are discussing today a big step forward in the legal context within which women fight to represent their community. This Bill, apart from the specific ways in which it changes UK law, also sends out an important message to the citizens of our country. It says that we want women to participate fully at all levels of government; that we need and value their contribution; and we are the poorer for lack of it.

We on these Benches welcome the Bill and are deeply committed to what it seeks to achieve. In fact, our party's very constitution enshrines our firm opposition to any discrimination on the basis of gender as well as of faith, race, age or anything else. We believe that the United Kingdom cannot achieve the fair, free and open society we seek unless such discrimination is outlawed.

There are times, of course, when action needs to he taken to nudge along a little equality of access to the corridors of power and to remove the barriers. The Bill we are discussing today is one such action and is therefore fully justified. However, the Liberal Democrats have chosen not to use all-women short lists as a mechanism for achieving gender balance in our parliamentary party even if the law were to allow it. That does not mean that we oppose appropriate and proportionate action to remove barriers and ensure women fair representation and opportunity.

We already currently have legal mechanisms for election to our federal committees which ensure a fair balance. We used the zipping mechanism for the party lists in the last European election. We are delighted that half of our number of MEPs elected at that time were women. We are also delighted that they have since been joined by an additional number of men.

We have ambitious targets. We ensure that selection committees are balanced and that short lists have at least one of each gender. We also insist on gender-neutral questions and mandatory training for selection committees in non-discriminatory practices. We offer special help and training to meet the needs of both genders with aspirations to enter all our legislatures.

There are of course, apart from all-women short lists, many other mechanisms which will become open to us when this Bill is made law. Pairing and clustering seats have had considerable success in Scotland and other countries where women are now much more fairly represented. We have not as yet ruled out any of those.

Your Lordships will know that we on these Benches are firmly committed to fair votes, otherwise known as proportional representation. There are many mechanisms of PR in operation all over the world. None of them in itself ensures fair representation of women. But different PR mechanisms can certainly help and can be used to achieve the objective of making sure that sections of a population receive their fair share of power. How that could be done is clearly a matter for debate at another time.

We are happy, therefore, that this is an enabling Bill and not a prescriptive one. We did not seek to amend it in another place and we are unlikely to do so here. We are happy that the Bill contains a sunset clause, because if it has not achieved our objective by 2015, there is something else going wrong and other act ion may be needed—indeed, it should have already been taken.

We are acutely aware that time is of the essence. Candidates for the most contentious seats in the House of Commons are already being selected by all political parties. It is therefore vital that this enabling legislation gets onto the statue book as soon as possible.

Can the noble and learned Lord assure us that time will be made available early in the new year for the remaining stages of this Bill? In the light of the comments of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, I also ask the noble and learned Lord what protection the Government will give to political parties as they test the Bill in operation. I am sure that the Government do not intend that political parties, with good intentions in line with the objectives of the Bill, should have to face expensive legal challenges. Would public money be available to defend such cases in the interests of the rights of 51 per cent of our population who are female? It seems that that could be necessary despite the reassurance of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, that there are no barriers in EU law to the ways in which this Bill will probably be implemented.

We are reassured that the Bill leaves all other protections of the Sex Discrimination Act intact. That is vitally important to ensure fairness across the whole of society. We see the Bill as part of the continuum of providing all our citizens with fair representation. Women are by far the biggest section of our community under-represented in public life, but as we have heard, there are others, too. Many of us are of the opinion that women can be the forerunners for others. If we can break the mould in favour of women, the largest group, we can more easily address the problem of under-representation of other groups too.

We wish the Bill a fair wind and look forward to the forthcoming stages with optimism that it will contribute to the fairer representation of our whole community in all the local, national and international legislatures in which we participate. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas holidays than to have had the pleasure and privilege of taking part in this excellent debate.

4 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, not least for their unanimity of support for the Bill. It is a particular pleasure for all of us that the noble Baronesses, Lady Jay and Lady Morgan, are present on this occasion as it is the culmination of a long struggle on both their parts.

It is unusual in my experience of this House when a question of social policy is involved that one does not have a contribution from the Bishops or, indeed, the Law Lords, but I suppose that both excellent bodies of men would have been in some difficulty on this occasion!

By and large everyone agrees on the thrust of the measure. Particular questions were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and were touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I shall return to those in a moment or two.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, took a different stance. Not for the first time I was genuinely interested in what he had to say and not for the last time we find ourselves in some disagreement. First, this is not a measure to bring about a socially representative Parliament. That is not its only purpose. I believe that it seeks to bring about a House of Commons which is truly reflective of the society in which we live. Secondly, it will offer the House of Commons the opportunity to tap into a vast reservoir of wasted talent. Thirdly, it is a step towards doing away with endemic discrimination in this country.

It was of interest to me, when I listened with care to all the speeches, to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, point out that women were first allowed to study law in 1901. She pointed out how far or how little we might have travelled a century later. The Bar Council, excellent body that it is, has had one female chair person in the whole of its history. The Law Society has not had a single female president. It will this coming year, if all goes well, in the form of an excellent solicitor from Swansea, Caroline Kirby. That just goes to show how foolish it is to be complacent and think that we have made any particular steps forward.

My noble friend Lord Brooke spoke of the measure as—

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. If he is saying that the purpose of the measure is to produce a House of Commons that is more reflective of society, I presume that he is not talking simply of a strict method of counting Members in the other place and also that the measure is designed to end discrimination. My point still holds that it is not just women who are discriminated against in that process and that if you want a House of Commons that is more reflective of society it is not just more women you need in it but other members of society as well. As the noble and learned Lord has made clear, he believes in variety in the membership of legislative chambers.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly. That is why this Chamber does rather better than the Commons in terms of variety. That demonstrates that pure democracy—if that is what it is—in terms of electing everyone does not necessarily produce the desired outcome. That is why I am sure that the Liberal Democrats will not urge an entirely elected House of Lords.

I was asked why this Second Reading is being held on 20th December, rather late in the year. I should have thought that was perfectly plain. It is the birthday of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and I wanted to offer her a decent present.

My noble friend Lord Brooke spoke of this as a small Bill, which it is. It is one small Bill, one giant leap for womankind. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was right to say that this is only the beginning. We in this House shall have to attune ourselves to sensible ways of working, not simply to be family friendly but to be human friendly so that we can all do our work properly.

On the legal questions, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, asked about the equal treatment directive. Our understanding is that that does not apply to the electoral process; in other words, selection for an election is not comparable to normal selection for employment. We are firm in our view on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, asked a number of questions, to which I give this answer. On balance, we consider that the differential treatment of men and women envisaged by the Bill would be, capable of being justified under ECHR Article 14 and would be unlikely to be held to be incompatible with Article 14 taken together with Article 3 of Protocol No. 1". I am afraid that that is a slight tease because, of course, I have just read a direct quotation from the Committee on which he serves; and there is more.

We take the view that it would be possible for a political party to exercise the freedom to engage in positive discrimination in selecting candidates contained in the Bill in a manner that would be permissible under European Community law. Therefore, I think we are in agreement that the real question to be considered is not the one on which we disagree—namely, whether a political party is likely to be found to be a public authority—but whether the remedies must be proportionate to the evil detected. That, of course, depends on the particular circumstances that are found to obtain. In particular—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. First, on the European Union law issue, is he aware that the Jepson case was not about whether the electoral process fell within the scope of EU law but that the tribunal came to the conclusion so far as EU law was concerned—I am now reading from the decision—that Members of Parliament are engaged in an occupation involving public service, for which they receive remuneration from public funds, and that that is why it falls within the broad definition in the EU equality directive? Secondly, so far as the Select Committee is concerned, is he aware that, though we found the Bill compatible, we went on to say that political parties are public authorities and potentially liable under the Human Rights Act, under Article 3 read with Article 14 of the Convention?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was aware of both those points because the case of Jepson is contained in a footnote to the report. I was well aware of the view taken about whether or not the political party was a public authority. I believe that the Committee came to the conclusion, without attempting a definitive view, that it might well be. In any event, that is a matter for the courts in due time. In a sense, that is not the central issue. The central issue is not whether or not it is a public authority. The question is whether it has behaved consistently and compliantly with ECHR. It seems to me that if the outcome is produced by proportionate remedy, that would be entirely lawful. I am grateful to see my noble friend Lord Lester nodding his agreement.

The ignoble question of funding, raised latterly by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, is a matter on which political parties will form their own judgments, as they do on the content of their electoral literature, posters and matters of that kind. They must take their own legal advice. Of course, the Liberal Democratic Party has the infinite benefit of the gratuitous advice that will be offered by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. However, I believe that one can overdo these matters. One needs a scheme or schemes produced by political parties, which are then vetted by legal advice. It seems to me that that kind of advice will not involve enormous expense.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, perhaps the noble and learned Lord would like to know that not only is the advice given free and gratuitously, but that the head of my chambers is a woman, that my chambers' practice manager is a woman, that most of the distinguished silks in my chambers are women, which goes to show that under an elected system in my chambers one can get the right results; and we are much better for it than other chambers, including, I imagine, the one of which the noble and learned Lord was himself a member.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it was quite a small chambers, and there was probably a closed list as well!

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also asked for an indication of the timetable. I am happy to say that, my arm having been twisted almost from its socket by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, the Committee stage will he as early as 21st January. We are not delaying and, given good will and a fair wind, we should get the Bill on to the statute book promptly. My noble friend the Chief Whip points out that there is nothing to stop parties from drawing up their tentative proposals long before Royal Assent. They would be ready for the pressure of immediate elections.

I am grateful to noble Lords for the quality of the debate. I realise that it is in a sense inconvenient, but we were determined to complete Second Reading before we broke for Christmas, and I am glad that that has pleased the House.

Before the Question is put formally, I wish all of us a happy and restful Christmas, not least the staff who serve us so faithfully, generously and cheerfully. And God bless Tiny Tim!

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is a very distinguished lawyer, which means that he is skilled at not altogether answering questions. Does the more reflective House of Commons that he wants entail 51 per cent of its membership being women?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

No, my Lords, it does riot, because human life—happily—is not that simple. If 49 per cent of Members of the House of Commons were women, my noble friend Lady Jay and I could live with that. Equally, if 51 per cent of the Cabinet were women, we could live with that as well, because that would be genuinely reflective. That is the way in which British society has always worked. It does not work on narrow arithmetical calculations. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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